The Japanese Fire Pro series is well known by wrestling fans as one of the longest-running wrestling game franchises available--provided you stay up to date on Japanese releases. While in the United States, developers have tried to capitalize on the strengths of the respective WWF and WCW licenses, but only the Fire Pro series has tried to capture the fun and excitement of wrestling without a federation license, taking it back to the days when Pro Wrestling on the NES was king. With the US debut of Fire Pro Wrestling on the Game Boy Advance, the western hemisphere can now check out what it's been missing since the days of the SNES.
Fire Pro Wrestling features good-looking 2D grapplers fighting in an isometric environment. The venues and crowds are attractive, but by no means mind-blowingly detailed. The fighters themselves look great for 2D sprites, with top-notch animation and each of the moves accurately rendered and easily recognizable by anyone familiar with real-life wrestling moves and holds. Even more impressive is the sheer number of unique fighters and the heated action that takes place when four fighters get it on at once. The different background themes are rock-heavy generic anthems, and the game doesn't suffer much with the sound turned down. You will, however, miss out on the crowd reactions and satisfying pounding noises, as well as the occasional sick squishing sound of a particularly gory move.
The fighters move fluidly, and the control is absolutely flawless. Your fighter tosses light and medium attacks with the A and B buttons and executes heavy moves with both face buttons at once. The R trigger sets your fighter running, while the L trigger lets you take a breather and regain some of your lost stamina. The select button causes your character to taunt, which has a palpable effect on the crowd as well as your own performance. In a welcome departure from the genre, the grappling system in Fire Pro punishes button mashers and rewards precise timing. Two characters will initiate the grapple by making contact with each other--the player to input the move command at the right time is rewarded with completing the maneuver. Matches require a steady progression from light to heavy techniques, as starting off with heavy moves will be met by damaging counterholds. Moves can range from standard body slams and triple German suplexes to submission techniques and even include hard-core techniques like jabbing someone's skull with a fork repeatedly, followed by a look that just screams "Me? I didn't do nuthin'!" To further reflect the explosive nature of full-contact fighting, Fire Pro has a critical feature, which allows finishing moves and some techniques the chance to knock out an opponent outright. This goes along with the focus on bloody, brutal matches. If your fighter gets punched or bitten in the face too often, a woman will scream in the background to let you know he's started gushing blood. Too many more hits, and your fighter's face and chest will be visibly coated by a reddish hue. Your fighter will either fight harder or give up easier based on his tolerance for bloodshed.
Fans of the US leagues will find a number of wrestlers modeled after the WWF and WCW superstars, albeit altered by palette swaps and some fairly humorous name changes. For example, the WWF's The Rock has been changed to have gray hair and blue tights and is now called the APW's "The Salesman" Joe Morici. His moves sets, distinctive taunts, and abilities are otherwise unchanged. Besides the American pro wrestling federations, you'll find athletes modeled after those in the Ultimate Fighting circuit, Pancrase, Pride, New Japan Pro Wrestling, and many more. The level of detail in many of these fighters and in their animations, as well as the accuracy of their moves sets, is amazing. Sakuraba, for example, a famous Japanese Pride competitor and widely renowned as one of the world's greatest fighters, appears in the game, complete with Mongolian chops, a twisting arm lock, and a leaping face stomp, as if his repertoire were lifted directly from a real-life event. In the Japanese version of the game, the fighters appear much more authentic, and a rename function is available to change anything you like, including the names of the federations. If you feel the need to change the colors--from green to the more appropriate red Kane, for example--you'll have to use up one of the game's 77 create-a-wrestler slots.
Fire Pro's create-a-wrestler feature is one of its strongest points, with more than 1,200 techniques to choose from as well as hundreds of faces and body parts--all in an intuitive, easy-to-manipulate system that creates fighters every bit as interesting and detailed as those available within the game. Character AI can be edited to determine fighter movement and actions when controlled by the CPU and can thus be manipulated to create the perfect tag team partner or truly aggressive opponent. Assigning skills, offensive and defensive attributes, and special abilities--like "one-minute finisher" or "submission criticals"--is loads of fun and can be used to re-create just about any fighter from any real-life fighting style imaginable. We had the chance to create a fist-fighting specialist modeled after Tank Abbott and had lots of fun knocking people out with mounted punches, basic striking attacks, and the occasional dirty trick.
Fire Pro Wrestling graces players with a multitude of enjoyable play options. Exhibition matches may take place with up to four wrestlers in the ring at once, in standard or "gruesome" (octagonal UFC-style) rings and even electrified cages. You can then participate in tournaments, five-on-five tier matches, and even enter a 64-fighter league. The deepest mode, however, is the intriguing audience match mode, which simulates the crowd-pleasing, entertainment aspect of wrestling. Your fighter competes in a series of matches, advancing from one rank to the next by defeating a predetermined number of opponents and attaining the necessary fan satisfaction rate. The criteria for impressive performances is based on the league you join, which can range from the stoic style--in which defeating your opponent as quickly as possible is the objective--to the Luchador style, in which high-flying, high-risk maneuvers win over the crowd. Completing all four ranks in a style will unlock additional wrestlers and fighters for future matches, as well as mark the victorious wrestler with a star on the character selection screen to denote his champion status. In all the modes, the scalable AI is extremely challenging and can pull off upsets and last-minute criticals with ruthless ability. Fire Pro Wrestling also lets up to four players link together for participating in tournaments, battle royals, or just for trading wrestlers.
Fire Pro Wrestling has made the transition from Japan to the US extremely well. Even though Fire Pro Wrestling doesn't bear any official licenses, when all the superfluous gimmicks and options are tossed aside and the comparisons are made, it shines as an enjoyable, solid wrestling game that will provide hours upon hours of entertainment to fans of the genre.